Sunday, October 31, 2021

Monster Mash - 1957-1972!

Let me state for the record that I am not a "Monster Kid", that generation of youngsters (almost all boys it seems) who were just the right age (ten or eleven or thereabouts) to suck in the delectable badness of monsters when the craze broke in 1957. I was too busy being born that year to concern myself with such things as Frankenstein and Dracula and other beasties of the night. But when I did finally sprout up in the middle 60's there was still enough of of the old monster glamour to attract my attention and then in the early 70's there was final burst of monstery awfulness to glom onto before it sputtered out for a time. Mark Voger in his Twomorrows tome Monster Mash-The Creepy, Kooky Monster Craze in America 1957-1972 touches on many if not most of the aspects of society which were touched or transformed or even given birth by the shocking interest in monsters. 

Like so many things in our culture the sudden and abiding interest in ghouls and goblins was television's fault. It began with "Shock!", a package of fifty-two horror and mystery films from Hollywood's golden era making its way to the small screen. These tepid films, mild by almost any era's standard, were still seen as just possibly too much for the tender psyches of America's youth and to avoid widespread condemnation but yet still reap some profits the folks who put this together didn't offer it to national TV but rather to regional stations in syndication. Those individual stations hired ghost hosts of sundry kind and put the shows on at the least objectionable hours they could find in the television landscape. Still the youth found these movies and gobbled them up with glee. Suddenly Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and the Mummy among many others were shambling around in America's living rooms and it was good...for business. 

The cavalcade of monster items was...well monstrous in size. There were masks, board games, card games, comic books, television shows, toys, candies, cards, paperbacks, and even specialty magazines dedicated utterly to the fad. First and foremost among these magazines was Famous Monsters of Filmland from Warren Publications. In fact Famous Monsters of Filmland is the outcropping on which Jim Warren built his little black and white empire that eventually gave us Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie, and most importantly Vampirella. Forry Ackerman was Jim Warren's partner of sorts in the venture and in fact it was the "Ackermonster's" vast collection of horror, sci-fi and fantasy movies which was the essence of the magazine. The "Monster Kids" had a leader and in the letters pages of FM, a place where they could congregate and compare notes. Other mags like Castle of Frankenstein and Monster World are given some space as well. 

One of the amazing things about Famous Monsters though was that as influential as the articles and stills might have been, the Captain Company might have been even more so to the collective memories of the "Monster Kids". Captain Company was the mail-order side of the Warren operation and showcased many monster and fantasy products that kids might order and certainly would want to order. Like the wishbook from Sears every Christmas season, this was a poor kid's window into what was possible. 

I wanted so many things from the Captain  Company but perhaps nothing so much as the life-size posters of Frankenstein by Jack Davis. There's one for Vampirella too by Sanjulian but who'd dare bring that into a home overseen by a God-fearing Mamma! Not me. 

A lot of space is spent discussing and showcasing the wonderful Aurora model kids which allowed "Monster Kids" to actually collect and build their own versions of these awesome monsters. 

That extended to such strange quasi-monster things such as Rat Fink created by car designer and artist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. Rat Fink's imitators are given some space as well. Goofy and gruesome about covers it. 

Marvel monster comics get a few pages with my personal favorite Atlas-era monster "Fin Fang Foom" getting a page all to his titanic self. But aside from the monsters there's no coverage of Marvel's other supernatural and monster endeavors nor is there any talk of DC's revival of mystery and ghost tales at their shop. Perhaps this has to do with the somewhat arbitrary cut-off point of 1972 but still there was much done by the "Big Two" before then. 

Getting a lot of love though and properly so are the Warren magazines which followed on after the success of Famous Monsters. Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella all get some discussion and some tasty artwork from Jack Davis and other talents of the time. 

A great many pages are devoted to the TV monsters such as The Munsters and The Addams Family. Voger suggests the appearance of these two shows almost simultaneously on home screens marks the apogee of the monster craze in America and it's hard to dispute this point, though monster stuff stayed around for a long time in some form or other. The John Astin interview was a highlight and there's much more on the actors in both series. 

And clearly the author was a monster fan of Dark Shadows, the ABC television soap opera which weirdly normalized the vampire and made it suitable faire for the living rooms of America. The succees of Barnabas Collins and other stars of the show are discussed at length and several interviews or portions of same are highlighted. Voger and his late wife have talked to a lot of folks over the years and that material bears fruit in this tasty tome. 

Jonathan Frid's vampiric mug is a great way to wrap up this month-long Halloween celebration. Mark Voger has fashioned a fun look at the monster craze, a fad that lingers still in the general background of modern American society. While monsters have become less faddish, they have become oddly normalized in a way that 1960's America would've found stunning. Voger's fannish book does a decent if incomplete job of showing how that happened. 

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Saturday, October 30, 2021

Monsters Crash The Pajama Party!

Once upon a time before the advent of home video and multi-plex cinemas the movie theater was a central gathering point for a community. It was an important location for entertainment of various kinds and offered all ages something to look forward to, something to enjoy together. Those days are largely gone and sadly despite the amazing convenience of access to entertainment in the modern era there is lacking a certain shared experience. One thing which was a staple of the movie theater for decades, coming to an end as the Reagan era was about to begin was the "Spook Show". 

The Spook Show was a clever and sometimes hamfisted blend of live entertainment and film focusing on things that went bump in the night. It was a way to package vintage horror movies and give the theater goer a little some different. These shows were magic acts and seance acts which had mutated from their beginnings in the 1920's and afterword and had become more jovial and ironic. They promised ghosts and goblins and zombies and vampires and monsters galore. But we knew they didn't mean it really and that was fine, it was a gag and the audience was well enough in on it. Some of these shows veered toward the gruesome  it's true. 

In 1965 the thirty minute flicker Monsters Crash the Pajama Party was made by a few pros and an avalanche of amateurs as a supplement for Spook Shows. It told a simple tale of a gang of sorority girls who decide to spend a night in a haunted house. Their boyfriends accompany them and then leave with full intentions of returning to frighten their ladies.

But no sooner have the girls changed into their teddys than a mad scientist sends his pet gorilla and his other monstrous assistants to capture the girls for his own nefarious ends. The boys arrive in the nick of time and so the mad scientist is forced to send his minions into the audience to find his prey. The lights go out and before you know it the screaming really begins. It's a nifty gimmick to justify some quick scares and it gives young couples a decent excuse to cuddle closer together.  Here's a link to the trailer

Something Weird Video has captured this film in all its malicious glory and passed it on to later generations. Something I'm very grateful for. Along with the half-hour movie we get an absolute bushel of strange and wonderful extras. 

There are two interviews with two of the old Spook Show ghostmasters -- Phillip "Dr. Evil" Morris and Harry "Dr. Jekyll" Wise and they are both hilarious and somewhat informative. There are beaucoup trailers and images related to the old shows and their advertising, even some handbooks on how to put on your own Spook Show. My favorite goodies are vintage home made movies from the 1920's, 1940's and 1960's. These are silent and show how dedicated fans can be. They are helped immensely but the soundtrack of  music from the Dead Elvi. There's even some vintage home made 3-D -- my dvd came with two pairs of glasses. 

There is even a full-length B-movie titled Tormented included in this bizarre collection. It's a ghost story starring Richard Carlson of It Came from Outer Space fame. His dead jilted girlfriend is not happy about his upcoming marriage and does her dead-level best to stop it. For a Bert I. Gordon movie it's not bad.  

You can get another version of the DVD, not quite as rich in extras along with a rousing CD in this collection of some of the many horror themed rock songs from years gone by. There is a lot of crossover between these two but there is some stuff specific to both also. Love the chaotic cover which evokes those old posters quite effectively. Nifty stuff for a Halloween Eve! 

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Modern Prometheus In Pen And Ink!

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein is one of the most influential novels in history. It's impact on culture is enormous generating plays and adaptations almost from the very beginning in the 19th Century. In more modern times adapting the story to film has been almost a requisite. There are countless film adaptations of the story from Edison's early attempt in the teens to the iconic Universal version in 1931 which along with its sequels and imitators catapulted the story into myth. I've read the novel a half dozen times at least and taught it in school many times as well. It's a lush story of one man's startling obsession to conquer death by bringing the reassembled remains of many dead back to some sort of shambolic existence. It is the story of a man's obsession to conquer nature and the cancel even the thought of God from the equation of man's time on this planet and beyond. The novel is a cornerstone of both science fiction and horror and more besides. And it was the lifelong love of another artist, a chap named Berni Wrightson. 

As an artist who was often called on to illustrate horror tales, Wrightson did many takes on the Frankenstein myth such as "The Patchwork Man" in Swamp Thing and "The Muck Monster" for Eerie Magazine.  But it's here, illustrating the original Shelley narrative that we see how much he is ideal for the work. It was a true of passion, something he worked on between paying jobs for Marvel and DC and others. It took seven years to create the artwork which would serve to draw the reader into the world of Frankenstein more completely. As can be seen readily Berni lavished time and effort into each of the carefully rendered pages, each capturing a single moment from the novel. Reading the novel again for the first time in several years I was struck by the venal nature of Frankenstein, his absolute self-absorption is stunning but alas exceedingly modern. If anything Wrightson elevates him to a more heroic status with his idealized presentations. 

The art was first published alongside the text by Marvel in one of their oversized graphic novels. I missed out back then and had long wanted to behold this material, to hold it in my hand. Dark Horse at long last gave me that chance when they published the book again. 

The art itself is magnificent and as it turns out stunningly expensive. The original of the image above (seen in its entirety below) sold recently for a cool million dollars

Below are just a few of the magnificent images which Wrightson produced for his favorite work of literature. He comes close to making it mine too. 

Tomorrow something completely different. 

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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Frankenstein Alive, Alive...For All Time!

Berni Wrightson died in 2017 before he could complete a second labor of love, a collaboration with Steve Niles which offered up a sequel of sorts to Mary Shelley/s enormously influential novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein Alive, Alive! though was a work which met with many delays and ultimately had to be finished by another aritst, Kelley Jones over Wrightson's layouts. It's a pity. 

The story begins in a Depression era circus where we find the Creature Frankenstein created many decades before working as a sideshow attraction. He bemoans that people are always disappointed by his appearance which though ghastly does not compare will with the popular culture interpretation of the creature found in popular movies of the day. The Creature begins to reflect on his history and how he comes to still be living in the 20th Century. We travel along in his revery as he remembers laying himself down in a glacier to die only to awaken some time later only to encounter a volcano which erupts immersing the Creature in lava. 

Her is found by Arctic explorers who find his encased body and cannot fathom what it might be. His form is transported to the home of Dr. Simon Ingles where he escapes from his rocky confinement. Ingles though is not put off by his strangeness and actually begins to take care of the Creature who finds comfort n the sprawling home of the Doctor. A library is an ideal place for him to expand his understanding of the world. He learns that Dr. Ingles has a wife who is dying and he as a scientist is using radical technology involving fetus material to attempt to keep her alive. 

Years pass and the Creature stays with Dr. Ingles and continues his education, all the time being assaulted in his dreams by the memories and ghosts of the people he has harmed in his terrible life. 
Suddenly he learns that Dr. Ingles is sending away his staff and many others who were at the house, folks the Creature had been largely unaware of. The reason is that Ingles in a desperate ploy plans to used the newborn child of an unfortunate woman to help cure his wife. But the Creature realizes the wife is dead and that Ingles is not unlike Frankenstein in certain ways with an unhealthy lack of concern for others. 

These first three chapters are gathered together when the final installment at long last appeared some years later. 

In the final chapter which  Wrightson was unable to complete, we see the Creature take action to save the mother and her child as the home of Dr. Ingles burns to the ground burying him and his wife. The Creature is forced by circumstance to deliver the baby in the most extreme of hostile winter environments but he is successful and sees both mother and child safely to a convent. That event convinces the Creature that his many attempts to kill himself have proven futile and despite his alien nature he has the right and responsibility to stay alive. 

It's a slender tale and I cannot say that aside from its singular message that there's  much heft to the story. Wrightson was using much more lush techniques to bring this story to life and while at times quite lovely they lacked the potency of his early pen and ink work on the novel itself so many decades before. I wish it were better, I really do. It's interesting to see Berni's layouts for the final chapter and I admire how Kelley tried hard to stay true to the original intent, though he does fail to get the depth in certain places. This is a flawed work but it does its share to help keep the Frankenstein saga alive for all time. 

Tomorrow I'll reflect on Wrightson's magnificent work on the Shelley's original novel. 

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Best Of Berni!

Berni Wrightson was the ideal artist to work for Warren Publishing's like of black and white horror magazines Creepy and Eerie. He such a perfect choice that it is surprising how little work he did for the company. Some years ago Dark Horse put together the Wrightson stories and art from both Creepy and Eerie in a highly readable single tome from a decade ago. 

The book begins with the work for Creepy and what is arguably Wrightson's comic art masterpiece "The Black Cat". He is credited with both the story and art and his gothic style is ideal to bring Poe to the comic page. This is followed  by a trio of stories written by Bruce Jones. The first is "Jenifer", a story of love and revulsion which is the very essence of weird. "Clarice" is a poem of sorts though no less horrific. "Country Pie" is a story that Wrightson inked over Carmine Infantino and gives a glimpse of serial killers of a different stripe. Bill DuBay wrote "Dick Swift and his Electric Power Ring", a heart-warming story in the Twilight Zone mode. This story also features the combo of Wrightson inking Infantino. Nicola Cuti wrote "A Martian Saga" for Wrightson, giving the artist the chance to put his stamp on the "Red Planet". Bruce Jones is back for "The Laughing Man", a story of the remote jungle and one greedy man's strange and lurid encounter with a hidden race of man-apes. 

Slipping over into a section dedicated to Wrightson's work for Eerie, we find first up a nifty and exceedingly well-drawn and well-written story entitled "The Pepper Lake Monster".  Bill DuBay is back with a nightmarish take on Little Nemo in a story titled "Nightfall", but this young Nemo is assaulted by nightmares rendered lovingly by Berni. The classic "Cool Air" gives Wrightson the chance to write and drawn a classic adaptation of unquestionably Lovecraft's most chilling story of horror. On a strange note Budd Lewis wrote "Reuben Youngblood: Private Eye" with pencils by Howard Chaykin. Wrightson inks this yarn about a pre-WWII gumshoe who runs afoul of German blood smugglers aboard a zeppelin. The story section of the volume concludes with a rare color story titled "The Muck Monster" by Wrightson, one he both wrote and illustrated which offers a startlingly different take on the classic Frankenstein monster-creation yarn. 

The final section of the book features some of Bern Wrightson's most alluring and repulsive artwork for Warren, the delightfully sarcastic frontispieces featuring both Uncle Creepy and Cousin Eerie as they introduce that issue's goodies. Wrighton's wonderful ability to blend horror and comedy is perfect for this task. We're also treated to the few covers that Wrightson did for Warren as well as getting a glimpse of the youthful fanboy Berni's contribution to Creepy #9 from 1966, years before Wrightson's debut as a pro in Creepy #62 with "The Black Cat" in 1974.

All the stuff in this volume is above average and most of it, the stuff done by Wrightson on his own is simply magnificent. Tomorrow we see more of Berni's take on Frankenstein. 

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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Weird Mystery Tales And More!

Berni Wrightson's cover for Weird Mystery Tales 100- Page Super Spectacular is my favorite Berni image. That demon squatting on the body of the wretch who called him forth is at once a funny and scary image, a combination that Wrightson was adept at. Below are some covers from various publishers such as DC, Marvel, Eclipse, Pacific, Warren, and others which show many sides of the great artist. 

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